Dave Holmberg: a behind-the-scenes force that helped shape BC politics

Dave Holmberg passed away recently at age 75.  If you do not live in Abbotsford, you may have never heard of him.  To me, he was one of the good guys in BC politics.  Not because we supported the same party, but because he epitomized the healthy convergence between community and politics.

Abbotsford advocate to receive Medal of Good Citizenship

I met Dave in the fall of 1993.  He was supporting a young upstart candidate in an upcoming by-election in Matsqui – a bespectacled, balding country lawyer and school trustee, who was not yet 30 years old.

BC politics was in a time of upheaval.  Gordon Campbell had been elected leader of the BC Liberal Party in September 1993.   He sought a seat in a Vancouver by-election.  Out in Matsqui, erstwhile Social Credit MLA Peter Dueck resigned, setting up a “free enterprise primary” between the declining Socreds and the upstart BC Liberals.  The Socreds had held the seat for decades; the BC Liberals had won seats nearby in the 1991 election.

The BC Liberal nomination in Matsqui was hotly contested.  The young country lawyer faced a polished, downtown Vancouver lawyer who had been an Abbotsford basketball star in his youth.

Dave went all-in on the young country lawyer.  I remember going to the nomination meeting in a high school gym somewhere in deep dark Abbotsford.  The country lawyer and Dave mobilized support, especially in the South Asian community, and pulled off, what was seen from the outside, as an upset. Over 23 years later, Mike de Jong hasn’t looked back, serving as Attorney-General, Forests Minister, Finance Minister, House Leader and a host of other senior roles.

Mike de Jong’s toughest campaign was the first campaign – the by-election.  I was assigned as the party organizer (I was the only party organizer at that time) and I happily volunteered to move out to Matsqui for the duration.  Dave was the campaign manager and, with the good graces of his wife Lee, I moved into his basement for a month.

Dave and his able communications man, Mark Rushton, built a team of strong locals, many who are still involved in the party today, like MLA Darryl Plecas.  There was a feeling in that campaign of optimism and change.  Grace McCarthy had returned to lead the Socreds and because of Dueck’s resignation, she had the opportunity to seek a seat and she took it.  She actually lived in Vancouver but knew she wouldn’t have a chance defeating Campbell there.  She counted on the Socred base in the Fraser Valley to breathe life into the party.

Looking back, we didn’t have the fancy systems you see in campaigns today.  That campaign was a lot of blood and guts, shoe leather and moxie.  While we certainly had a lot of out-of-town campaigners on weekends, there was a strong local core that Dave, Mike, and Mark drew into the campaign.

The campaign itself was exciting and heated.  McCarthy was in the fight of her political life.  We had momentum and could feel it.  We had a great team feeling, with Dave as our campaign leader.  We were all pretty amped up and probably more hopeful than we ought to have been.  Out of 13,000 votes cast, we scraped by with a 42 vote margin.  A win is a win is a win, as they say.

The Matsqui by-election result left a permanent mark.  Grace McCarthy retired from politics and the Social Credit Party effectively died.  In the immediate aftermath, expectations were sky high that the BC Liberals, under Gordon Campbell, would consolidate the free enterprise base.  However, many on the right were not yet ready to join something called ‘Liberal’ nor one that was led by someone who had been mayor of Vancouver months earlier.  In a shocking development (and I mean shocking), Social Credit MLAs Jack Weisgerber, Richard Neufeld, Lyall Hanson, and Len Fox bolted to the BC Reform Party.  BC Reform was basically just a brand.  It was not the same party as Preston Manning’s federal Reform Party that was surging at the time.  But what it offered the four ex-Socreds was a fresh start without having to join the Campbell Liberals.

All of a sudden, there was a new BC political party, with official party status and a brand that resonated.  The push to unite the free enterprise side of the spectrum was thwarted.  Dave, Mike de Jong, Mark, and the local team had pulled off a great win and moved the ball down the field for the BC Liberals, but the Party could not punch the ball in for a touchdown.

A year later, there was another battle in the Valley when one of the two remaining Socred MLAs, Abbotsford MLA Harry de Jong, resigned.  Dave and Mark were at it again, playing a strong behind the scenes role to help elect John van Dongen.  van Dongen won by a few hundred votes over the BC Reform candidate, settling the matter of which party would be the primary force to contest the NDP in the next provincial election, but not quite finishing off BC Reform.  As history shows, the NDP pulled a Trump in 1996 – losing the popular vote and winning the election.  Though that election was a missed opportunity for the BC Liberals, the 1994 and 1995 Fraser Valley byelections played a pivotal role in reshaping the landscape of BC and helped set up the mandates that would follow.  It’s hard to imagine how it would have happened without Dave.

Thinking about Dave the man, he was such a strong personality that you didn’t have to ask who was boss.  He could come across as Jimmy Swaggart at a Richie Brothers auction, but that was an occasional entertaining public persona.   Privately, he could be tough as nails when he needed to be, but always a great friend who was fiercely protective and loyal.  And he was a helluva lot of fun.  I didn’t know what to make of him at the start but, in short order, I came to respect him and enjoy him immensely.

One day, we were just talking about life.  I was a young guy and liked talking to older guys who had some life experience.  This was 1994 and he owned and operated Bobcat Country.  He told me about the 1982 recession and how he almost lost everything – how they would go a month without a phone call at the dealership.  He hung on, he fought, he held it together.  It resonated with me, as my father had endured the same brutal hardships of a recession that we haven’t seen the likes of since.

On the lighter side, it was a cold by-election.  There was a lot of snow, I recall.  I remember getting his goat when he was used as  target practice in the parking lot for snowballs.  There was the time he found great delight after I returned to the campaign office ashen faced from a turkey slaughterhouse tour.  Then there were the endless hijinks with Mark Rushton and the lectures we received from the office manager for the three of us endlessly scheming in the backroom.  And it was very much a smoke-filled backroom.

Political life is full of Dave Holmbergs that get involved for all the right reasons.  There are many outstanding community leaders like Dave I have had the pleasure to meet across BC.  As a young person growing up in politics, I learned so much from these mentors.

It’s also instructive to see what a force Mike de Jong has been in BC politics over the past two decades.  It’s local guys like Dave that are behind leaders like Mike.  He wouldn’t be there without Dave, and he knows it.

The community knows Dave the best.  Holmberg House, a local hospice, was funded out of his family’s generosity and sadness.  Dave’s son and business partner, Dave Jr., succumbed to cancer in 2011. His countless good deeds will be remembered in the community, where it matters, but his impact on politics in BC is one of those unheralded stories that deserved to be told.

See Abbotsford News profile here

See obituary here

Tribute from Abbotsford Hospice Society here